Bunker Mentality

"Look, you put anybody on television 16 hours a day, and sooner or later they're going to fall off a table and land on a cat."

— EDTV

I have seen the future, and it scares the hell out of me ... and, no, I'm not talking about the in-production Lifetime movie that stars Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor.

Well, maybe a little about that.

The other frightening piece of the future that has revealed itself this week has nothing to do with Snooki moving out of the "Jersey Shore" house or the planned reboot of "The Munsters" or even that the Big Four networks are set to throw 32 sitcoms at us by November.

(Yes, I said "The Munsters.")

"The television, that insidious beast," wrote the late, great Ray Bardbury, "that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little."

What Medusa is giving us now comes from Spike — the network, not the film director or lovelorn vampire — has announced plans for a series to be called "Last Family on Earth," which will pit survivalist clans against each other in a series of challenges designed to test their moxie ... with the grand prize being a fully decked-out, underground bunker.

From which, if doomsday believers are accurate, the "winning" family will get to watch ... well, no one's sure exactly. The end of the world being unscripted territory and all.

"These are regular people," Sharon Levy, executive vice president of original programming at Spike, told The Associated Press.. "These are not people that you may think are living in a shelter in the middle of the woods. These could be your friends."

Well, not my friends. My friends believe that the end of the world is coming from a threat beneath the surface of the Earth — which would render the concept of an underground hidey-hole (no matter how expensive) particularly useless ... save for the ironic, dark-comedy payoff.

Six episodes have been ordered for "Last Family," although Levy told reporter David Bauder of the AP that she saw no reason the show couldn't continue for several seasons.

Pause.

C'mon, you know you want to say it.

All right, yes, Bauder then noted the obvious problems inherent in more than one family "winning" the title of "Last Family On Earth" ... or even the possibility of a second season.

The best part about "Last Family" is that we, the American Viewing Public — the people who voted for Quisp over Quake, who keep "Rules Of Engagement" on the air and who thought Cloris Leachman could samba — we get to have a say on which survivalist family will win ...

... and, by definition, which families we doom, as we sit back and quaff a cold one.

The prospect brings to mind the thoughts of TV host Damon Killian (portrayed by the late, great Richard Dawson), after Ahnuld has dispatched a beloved stalker to the horror of the captive audience in "The Running Man."

"Words can't express what we're all feeling at this very moment. A great champion has fallen," Killian says. "We'll be back right after these important messages."

When you think about, isn't that what we do anyway as we vote for the singers or dance couples or presidential candidates or talent show contestants or, coming soon, who we should date? We decide whose dreams live and whose die ... or, at least, who is reduced to an existence as a bucket of warm spit, opening act for someone who became a star by getting more votes.

"You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal," Paddy Cheyefsky warned us in "Network" through deranged TV anchorman Howard Beale. "You do whatever the tube tells you. ... You even *think* like the tube!"

But it's not just on competition shows that viewers are trying to control the medium.

Take ABC's new series "Glass House" ... please. The network said this week that 14 people will become housemates and compete for a $250,000 prize. Audience feedback will help shape the contestants' daily life and who stays in the game. Not to be confused with CBS's perfectly-named "Big Brother," of course.

Fans start write-in campaigns to save cancelled series. They "continue" their favorites past cancellation by churning out fan-fiction episodes. They translate Shakespeare's plays back into the original Klingon.

They even want to dictate which characters can be seen on their favorite shows.

As "House" wrapped up it's run on FOX after 176 amazing medical mysteries, several former cast members came back for curtain calls, as it were. One former regular — Lisa Edelstein, who portrayed Cuddy — did not come back, creating a fan backlash that caused pushback from those who remained.

"When did storytelling become interactive?" actor Robert Sean Leonard, who played Wilson, said in an Entertainment Weekly interview. "It's annoying. I don't think it's right."

Leonard is tilting at windmill at this point, however, if he believes the audience should sit coolly at their televisions in a Marshall McLuhan stupor and let the story unfold to them. The audience has always had the upper hand, and in it, the remote control.

Besides, as McLuhan said himself, "Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it."

And what is happening to this old culture is that a TV series such as "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," which sought to build community involvement as it constructed now houses for deserving recipients, has been cancelled. And "Last Family On Earth," which will allow us to choose those worthy of a survival shelter, is on the horizon.

In that same spirit, insert your own punchline here.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin writes occasionall about television for Tempo. He can be reached at rgalvin@mailtribune.com


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